Syria's rebels and soldiers agree: military strikes will change nothing

A Free Syrian Army fighter aims an anti-aircraft gun outside a wrecked building. Photo: Reuters

Syria's rebels and President Assad's soldiers agree on next to nothing. They've killed each other by the tens of thousands in a war mired in stalemate. But they're now agreed on one thing. The military strike America is now preparing will change nothing and do no good.

For the rebels, the attack will be too little, too late; a strike so long delayed that it will destroy only empty buildings and broken warplanes.

For the Government and its troops, it's a petulant volley of Western frustration, born of the lies America has told the world about Assad's responsibility for firing chemical weapons and of its determination to overthrow him. They predict their President will emerge after several days of bombing and be "like Nasser", as one commander told me; "an Arab leader who stood up to the Americans and faced down their attacks".

Syrian officials are already portraying their country as "the victim of American aggression"; the words of its ambassador at the United Nations Bashar al-Jaafari. "We just can't stand up to the resources of the US military", he pleads. But the soldiers I meet on the front lines are more defiant than their man in New York.

"When they send their rockets we'll shoot them out of the sky", says one grizzled fighter, raising his battered Kalashnikov rifle in the air. When I ask them what weapons they have to take down the Cruise missiles likely to be fired, they assure me they have secret weapons that will do the job.

But for all the bravado, soldiers and citizens of the capital are watching events with growing concern. On international TV channels, government officials monitor the mood in Washington, alarm growing as the US Senate edges towards a strike, hope rising that the House of Representatives may reject it. On the day of prayer and rest, attention switched in homes and cafes to the gathering of world leaders in Russia. Many told me they were confident that with Russia, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa opposing military action, they are protected by a global shield against attack. But the question "what do you think?" always follows, betraying their worry that America will bomb, regardless of what the world thinks.

Activists hold banners and Syrian flags during a protest against potential US strikes Credit: Reuters

On Mount Qassioun, the hilltop overlooking Damascus, there are few soldiers to be seen. which is odd, because it's the site of huge military bases and of the artillery positions that have pounded suburbs like Daraya and Eastern Ghouta, where hundreds died in the chemical weapons attack. Now, at night, a few hundred people hold hands and hold Anti American signs there, acting as human shields against a possible attack. A basketball star and a well-known actress appeared on the first day, trying to coax Damascenes to follow the defiant example of Belgrade, where thousands rallied with targets pinned to their chests, before NATO bombed that city.

Others have begun to sleep outside already. A park near a complex of army and government buildings is filled with the night-time smell of jasmine and with families too scared to stay in their nearby homes. There are reports that a military radar system has been dismantled at Damascus International Airport; that missiles, tanks and aircraft have already been hidden; that Intelligence and Defence buildings have been emptied of vital computers. The Information Ministry has a new satellite television set-up in case the State Broadcasting building is attacked.

One Army commander trained in missiles at Mount Qassioun's base told me the Americans might hit the mountain but the soldiers and the key equipment would be deep inside; the Cruise missiles wouldn't penetrate. The Americans also know this. They've opted not to fly warplanes into Syrian air space that could deliver the bunker buster bombs that would penetrate deep underground. Instead they'll deploy Cruise missiles that will make a mess, but only of surface targets and buildings.

A view of Mount Qassioun Credit: Reuters

Around the swimming pools of the rich areas of Damascus, the middle class and business leaders -or at least those of them who haven't chosen to flee- predict the unintended consequences of an American raid. If it destroys enough of the planes, airfields, helicopters and equipment that has given Assad a clear military advantage over the rebels, they say, America might give al-Qaeda linked groups the opening they need to push on the capital and take down the whole regime. Many Christians and Sunnis, as well as Assad's key Alawite supporters, are concerned that the secular, tolerant Syria they remember may be destroyed by an Islamist offensive on the back of American missiles.

But most believe the American strike will do little and solve nothing. Command buildings may be struck but the commanders are unlikely to be inside. It's been a week since I heard a MiG warplane fly over the capital, once a regular sound. No-one imagines they're still on the runways. As one rebel put it "the Americans will scratch the surface, hit five per cent of the regime's power and save face. That won't save us from another attack".

Meanwhile the street fighting and the killing goes on. In Tadamon, a Southern suburb of Damascus, I watched intense gun battles, bullets taking chunks off a Mosque underneath pro-Assad fighters who've made exactly four hundred yards progress against rebels in a year. One of the fighters, Abu Issa is seventy years old, dressed in full camouflage and enjoying his third war. On a street strewn with bullet casings and stinking of rotting animals, he fires volleys of shots at the rebel positions just fifty yards away and breathes deeply as he walks backs towards me. "I fought the Israelis in '67 and '73", he says proudly. "The Americans can shoot their missiles but they'll get nowhere. Our real enemy is over there, on the ground- al Qaeda!"

An educated young commander, his English good and his grasp of Western democracies even better, is genuinely puzzled. "How can it be", he asks me in his office, "that America is going to fight us, on the side of Al Qaeda? How can America be against a secular country and for Islamists who kill their prisoners and dump their bodies in a well?"

The latest video of rebels shooting seven cowering soldiers they'd captured is playing on State television, joining other graphic execution clips aired regularly by the government to horrify Syria's public and to convince people that the opposition is dominated by savage fanatics.

The commander points to a photo on his wall. He is with five other men- his close circle of friends a year ago. Two are now dead, two are prisoners. He holds back tears describing one of the dead men by his nickname "deaf tiger". He had ordered him to stop advancing against rebels in a street, but the fighter paid no heed.

But it's not just fighters still dying. As I left Tadamon, a young man in bright red England football shirt approached with a framed photo. He said it was his friend, Mohamed Ali Na'maa, who was Syria's Taekwando champion from 2009 to 2011. "He was second in the Asian championships", he said proudly. But the day before at eight in the morning, Mohamed was killed by a mortar that landed on the sports hall he was in. He was 24-years-old. Nearby a group of boys listened. One eight year old cradled a plastic gun with a Syrian flag stuck on it.

A local commander Abu Aksen, rested his hand on the shoulder of his smiling six year old son who was dressed in the full uniform of a Syrian army colonel. "He is our future", he said, "and he wants to fight the Americans and the terrorist gangs!"

There seems no end to Syria's crisis. As the G20 leaders talked, the mortar explosions echoed across Damascus. Every day brings more death. And now they wait nervously for America's decision, for more missiles and for another twist in a long war that has already had too many.

More on this story